Myths About Good Writing
You may have been taught to follow one or more of the rules below by a well-intentioned but misinformed teacher in your past. We regard these rules as myths, in most cases because they both run contrary to the practice of excellent writers and are based on false linguistic assumptions.
- “Never start a sentence with But or And.”
- “Never end a sentence with a preposition.”
- “Never split an infinitive.”
- “The only good sentence is a short sentence.”
- “Never begin a sentence with Hopefully.”
- “Never use the passive voice.”
- “Always use that for restrictive elements, which for nonrestrictive.”
“Never start a sentence with But or And.”
But what about Lincoln? “But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate—we can not consecrate—we can not hallow—this ground.” And what about the King James Bible? “And the evening and the morning were the first day.”
If you do begin a sentence with one of these conjunctions, we recommend that you follow it with a comma only if a modifying element intervenes between the conjunction and the subject of the sentence. In Lincoln’s sentence, in a larger sense is such a modifying element. Without it, the sentence should begin, “But we can not dedicate.” Don’t write “But, we can not dedicate.”
“Never end a sentence with a preposition.”
Ending with a preposition does occasionally rob you of the opportunity to come down on a strong word. (See Care and Imagination and Strunk.) The same holds for a clause within a sentence. Imagine Lincoln writing, “that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause which they gave the last full measure of devotion for.”
There is, however, no grammatical prohibition against ending with a preposition, and in some situations advancing the preposition to mid-sentence causes weird distortions, a point illustrated by Winston Churchill’s waggish reference to “the sort of thing up with which I will not put.”
The important thing to remember is not to put the preposition in both places. Do not write, for example, “That is the kind of story for which Shakespeare was famous for.”
“Never split an infinitive.”
The linguist David Crystal rightly notes that the original Star Trek television series would have lost something if the mission of the Enterprise had been, “Boldly to go where no man has gone before.” Crystal observes that To boldly go has an iambic, and therefore more natural, not to say poetic, rhythm.
Let rhythm and sense be your guides with infinitives. You certainly shouldn’t split them if doing so makes the sentence hard to follow, as in H.W. Fowler’s example: “[The book’s] main idea is to historically, even while events are maturing, and divinely—from the Divine point of view—impeach the European system of Church and States.”
“The only good sentence is a short sentence.”
The 81-word final sentence of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address illustrates the wrongheadedness of this assumption. So does the 181-word sentence that introduces Stephen Blackpool in Charles Dickens’s Hard Times:
In the hardest working part of Coketown; in the innermost fortifications of that ugly citadel, where Nature was as strongly bricked out as the killing airs and gases were bricked in; at the heart of the labyrinth of narrow courts upon courts, and close streets upon streets, which had come into existence piecemeal, every piece in a violent hurry for some one man’s purpose, and the whole an unnatural family, shouldering and trampling, and pressing one another to death; in the last close nook of this great exhausted receiver, where the chimneys, for want of air to make a draught, were built in an immense variety of stunted and crooked shapes, as though every house put out a sign of the kind of people who might be expected to be born in it; among the multitude generically called “the Hands,”—a race who would have found more favor with some people, if Providence had seen fit to make them only hands, or, like the lower creatures of the seashore, only hands and stomachs—lived a certain Stephen Blackpool, forty years of age.
This sentence is perfectly grammatical (it is not a run-on), is perfectly clear, and should try the patience only of a reader whose attention span does not exceed a typical segment of Sesame Street.
In fact, the sentence is grammatically simple, with subject and predicate (highlighted) reversed yet in close proximity. Its long string of prepositional phrases (In the . . . in the . . . at the heart of . . . in the) filled out with relative and adverbial clauses, isn’t gratuitous but a powerful verbal recreation of the “labyrinth” that leads to Stephen Blackpool’s cramped and airless slum home—itself a symbol of the suffocating life lived by workers in early industrial England.
Dickens, worried about the effect of such a life both on the individuals forced to live it and on society as a whole, knew perfectly well how to make his point in a short sentence, as when he wrote, later in Hard Times: “All closely imprisoned forces rend and destroy.” But the earlier sentence is the fuse that makes the later one explode. As explained in the section on Care and Imagination, good writers know how to vary the lengths of sentences for maximum effect.
“Never begin a sentence with Hopefully.”
“Hopefully, your package will arrive tomorrow.” By some, this sentence would be held ungrammatical, even arrogantly derided as foolish, on the grounds that a package, being incapable of emotion, could not possibly arrive “hopefully,” i.e., full of hope. But in English it’s common for an initial adverb to modify the sense of the entire following clause. Oddly, it’s only “hopefully” that seems to disturb people. Would anyone object to “Mercifully, the ship survived the storm” because it wasn’t the ship that displayed mercy? Luckily, more people seem to be realizing the absurdity of the ban on this indispensable word. It is to be hoped that soon writers will stop twisting their sentences into pretzels from misguided fear of its use.
“Never use the passive voice.”
Read through The Guide carefully, and you will find it has been used now and then. As explained in the section on Lucidity, Simplicity, Directness, the active voice generally feels livelier to a reader, and the passive can be an invitation to avoid responsibility. However, the passive voice can be a means of varying sentence patterns, and at times, as Strunk demonstrates, it makes the best sense. Its capacity for omitting agency may seem a boon to the speaker or writer even when it draws justified accusations of cowardice from listeners or readers. President Reagan had good reason to be grateful for the passive voice after the Iran-Contra scandal: “Mistakes were made,” he said.
“Always use that for restrictive elements, which for nonrestrictive”
Not many people know the difference between a restrictive and a nonrestrictive element, and thus if our purpose here were to explain the difference merely in order to explode a myth few even understand, we would be wasting our time. Hopefully (you may be thinking), they have an additional purpose. Fortunately, we do.
Definitions: Restrictive and Nonrestrictive
A restrictive element narrows the meaning of the word or phrase it modifies. Take the sentence,
(1) The goldfish which I bought you on Tuesday has died.
Here the clause which I bought you on Tuesday picks out a particular goldfish, distinguishing it from other goldfish that the writer might have bought on Monday, Wednesday, or Thursday. The situation is different with
(2) The goldfish, which I bought you on Tuesday, has died.
Here the writer assumes that the reader knows which goldfish is meant, and the clause which I bought you on Tuesday simply contributes additional information. If the clause were struck from the sentence, the meaning would remain unaltered.
The difference may seem too subtle to care about. But consider the following two sentences:
(3) Philandering presidents who abuse their office should be impeached.
(4) Philandering presidents, who abuse their office, should be impeached.
The writer of (3) only wishes to impeach some philandering presidents—those who abuse their office. This writer believes either that philandering doesn’t constitute an abuse of office, or, more likely, that only particular kinds of philandering do so. On the other hand, the writer of (4) clearly sees philandering as an abuse in itself and sufficient cause for impeachment. This writer asserts that all philandering presidents should be impeached. Removing the four words who abuse their office would radically alter the meaning of (3); it would diminish the information offered in (4) without affecting the essential meaning.
The Myth Considered
Now back to the myth. In the interest of clarity, there are those who would like to reserve that for restrictive elements and which for nonrestrictive. The idea has some merit. It sounds distinctly odd when writers use that for nonrestrictive clauses:
(5) The goldfish, that I bought you on Tuesday, has died.
The question, however, is whether a writer should be compelled to rewrite (1) thus:
(6) The goldfish that I bought you on Tuesday has died.
Use of nonrestrictive that, as in (5), is not widespread; however, use of restrictive which, as in (1), is common, and therefore to insist on substituting (6) for (1) would be foolhardy without first considering whether such insistence (a) serves a useful purpose and (b) places an undue burden on writers.
Does the prohibition of restrictive which serve a useful purpose? In (2) and (4), you’ll notice that the nonrestrictive element is surrounded by commas. Commas are the simplest, most effective way to indicate a nonrestrictive element, and the reader who can trust a writer to use them properly needs no guidance from the choice of pronouns. In fact, commas are the only available guide in (4), where pronoun choice is not an option.
Does the prohibition place an undue burden on writers? The writer who must adhere to the that/which distinction loses a useful means of avoiding awkward repetition. Compare:
(7) That was the weapon that did the damage.
(8) That was the weapon which did the damage.
The writer of (8) escapes using that twice in a short span. In this example, once again, the difference may appear minuscule. But imagine not being able to write
(9) That which lives must die.
To bring this long discussion to a close, we take the following positions:
- Good writers may use either that or which for restrictive elements.
- Good writers should not use that for nonrestrictive elements, as in (5).
- Good writers use a comma or commas to indicate a nonrestrictive element.
- Philandering presidents who abuse their office should be impeached.